Sound and vision blog

20 posts categorized "Film"

14 November 2012

Documenting music in Nepal

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Seto Machindranath festival, Nepal 1955-56

At the British Library we have been digitising some of our film and video collection. It’s a collection that has been built up not with an overall moving image resource in mind, but rather as a reflection of the interest of particular curators. So the collection does not cover all subjects, instead specialising in certain areas, often relating to sound because the videos were traditionally collected by the Library’s sound archive. So it is that highlights of the collection include experimental theatre recordings, oral history intervies, a large number of pop videos, and ethnomusicological recordings collected by our World and Traditional Music section.

Films from the latter are among the first batch of films that we have digitised, and four extracts have just gone up on YouTube, on a new British Library playlist, Sound and moving image collections. They are films taken by the celebrated Dutch ethnomusicologist Arnold Adriaan Bake (1899-1963). Bake documented music and dance in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka from the 1920s to the 1950s, primarily in audio format (reel-to-reel tapes, wax cylinders and Tefiphone recordings on 35mm film) but occasionally on 16mm film as well. He served as Lecturer in Indian Music at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and wrote widely on Indian music. His advocates and acolytes are scattered across the globe; likewise his sound and film collections. At the BL we have many sound recordings he made on field trips in 1925-1928, 1931-1934, and 1939-1941, and the greater part of his film legacy, with 16mm material from the 1930s and 1950s.

Indra Jaatra Festival Kathmandu, 1931

It has to be said that Bake was probably happier with an audio recorder than with a camera. The films are erratically shot and sometimes clumsily composed, with many of the flaws in production and technique associated with the amateur. The footage is unedited, and little information survives on what was shot, when, and where. Consequently the identification and coherent presentation of the films has been quite an undertaking. We’re still working on the collection, but we have released four preview edited extracts that bring together Bake’s films (which were shot silent) with some of his sound recordings (which were made around the same time but not intended as synchronous accompaniments to the films).

We’re not interested in such films as art (though it’s always welcome when one encounters a little artistry) – we’re interested in the content, in what the film documents, and in this case its mean for a particular community. Each video is accompanied by this important message on the respect due to works that document traditional practices:

The British Library has made these recordings available purely for the purposes of non-commercial research, study and private enjoyment. These recordings should not be altered or used in ways that might be derogatory to the indigenous and local communities who are traditional custodians of the traditional music, lyrics, knowledge, stories, performances and other creative materials embodied in the recordings.

An important aspect of the preservation and digitisation of the films has been a repatriation project with the Music Museum of Nepal (half of the films were shot in that country). We sent the digitised films to the museum, they supplied us with detailed documentation, which we have incorporated in our catalogue records and which helped inform the further preservation work and production of edited extracts (more of which will follow in due course).

Matayaa festival, 1955-56

I know nothing of the music of Nepal, and I’m very much aware that what I see in the films is purely surface, while for others they are rich in meaning and significance. It’s a marvellous experience to sit with those who do have that knowledge and to learn from them what what can be seen (and heard) by those who have the eyes (and ears) to see (and hear). We hope that in publishing these short extracts that we will attract those with expert knowledge to help us document the films that much more accurately. We will be publishing further extracts, as well as other examples from our collections, on the YouTube playlist, ahead of making greater amount of archive film and video available in our reading rooms in 2013.

Even if I don;t know much about the music of Nepal, I think the films have an unpretentious beauty about them. I am enthralled by the shot of vertiginous crowds attending the Indra Jaatra festival in Kathmandu in 1931, intrigued by the chariot that needs to be taller than the buildings around it so as not to displease the God in the colour film of the Seto Machindranath festival, and it is such a delight to see the young boy so earnestly playing his drum along with the Newar musicians in 1955-56. As even these short extracts make clear, Bake had a most sympathetic eye.

Matayaa festival, Nepal 1955-56


19 August 2011

Raiders of the lost archive

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Miguel Mera

Well, I don't know - this blog publishes nothing in over three months, and then we get three posts in the space of three hours. Where might all this giddiness end? Here's news of an event taking place at the end of September, one of the regular series of 'Sound Cases' talks that we hold throughout the year:

Raiders of the Lost Archive: revealing process in film composition

When: Thu 29 Sep 2011, 13.00 – 14.00

Where: Centre for Conservation, British Library

Price: Free, booking essential

As early as 1989 Stephen Wright suggested that the lack of availability of source materials was the largest obstacle to the widespread advancement of film music scholarship. This presentation will suggest ways in which a variety of source materials, especially digital sources, might impact on our understanding of film music. As a film composer himself, the speaker is uniquely able to comment on the practical, collaborative and creative interactions that take place during the creation of a film score, thus providing an insight into soundtracks both artistically and within their production contexts.

Miguel Mera is a composer of music for the moving image and a musicologist. He has composed music for feature films and numerous television dramas and documentaries. Miguel is the Head of the Centre for Music Studies at City University.

Do come if you can. It promises to be quite a special event.

05 September 2010

Recommended reading no. 4 - Halliwell's Film Guide

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Here's number 4 in an occasional series that reviews unfamiliar or neglected books on film (which of course you can find here at the British Library). Today's choice is Leslie Halliwell's Halliwell's Film Guide (London: Granada, 1977, 2nd ed. 1979, 3rd ed. 1981, 4th ed. 1983, 5th ed. 1985, 6th ed. 1987, 7th. ed. 1989).

At first sight, Halliwell's Film Guide may not seem a suitable choice for an unfamiliar or neglected text, since it is hardly an obscure work in need of championing. It's the one film book that anyone is likely to have (in the UK, at least) if they have just the one film book on their shelves. But as far as I am concerned, there are two Halliwell's Film Guides. One is the work that ran to seven editions and ended in 1989 with its original author's death. The other is the 1396-page behemoth in its umpteenth edition, edited by John Walker from 1991 and David Gritten from 2008. It is the former that has become the neglected work, and which is worth examining once again.

Leslie Halliwell (1929-1989) was, by profession, a buyer of films for television, for the ITV network for much of his career and for his final years the buyer of US films for showing on Channel 4. He had previously been a film writer and cinema manager, and became a household name through his Filmgoer's Companion (first published 1965) and his Film Guide (first published 1977). He wrote several other books on film history.

The original Film Guide listed 8,000 English language films. With successive editions, foreign language and silent films were added, as well as new films. The history of the Guide, its predelictions, omissions and variations, you can read about at Halliwell was notoriously traditionalist in his tastes (the most recent film to which he awarded one of his coveted four stars was Bonnie and Clyde, from 1967), loathing most of the trends that were to characterise the cinema of the 1970s onwards. Halliwell revered the 30s and 40s, which of course just happened to be the cinema that he knew when growing up, and it is the values of the films from that so-called Golden Age of cinema that determine for Halliwell what cinema should be, and now no longer was.

The Halliwell's Film Guide that we find on the bookshelves now is a bizarre creature, because the greater part of it is still Halliwell's original writing, but the entries for more recent films and patently written by a different hand with diametrically opposed opinions and system of scoring. Films that Halliwell would have decried are now praised to the skies and older films that once he marked down have been revalued, sometimes with a peculiar mix of modern and traditional editors' comments. It makes for a very strange read, and again is the place to go if you want to see some of these anomalies analysed.

Cinema has moved on, and the new editors are right to produce something for the readership of today. Eventually, one assumes, they will over-write everything that Halliwell himself originally produced - if they ever have the time to view all those films again. So that's why one has to go back to the sixth edition and before to uncover the original work with its unadulterated authorial mind, and to discover its virtues.

Those virtues are of two kinds. One is the record of a view of cinema from someone with an intelligent knowledge of every aspect of its production, exhibition and social history who grew up in the period when traditional Hollywood was at its height. It is a sometimes curmudgeonly, sometimes nostalgic view, but there is value in the precision with which it sets out its opinions. Cinema was once the ugly upstart that supplanted the theatre and music hall and was representative of all that was vicious about the modern age. Wind forward a few decades, and it is the rosy home of steady virtues (social, technical, artistic) that is in its turn threatened by all that is new.

The second virtue - and that which appeals to me - is in the writing. Ernest Lindgren in his book The Art of the Film (another candidate for a neglected text) writes of the 'single action' or 'plot-theme' which characterises the well-constructed film. He says:

The film ... represents its action as taking place before us while we sit and watch it, and it requires to be viewed in a single sitting ... The story of the most successful kind of film ... will confine itself to the representation of a single action.

Lindgren then says that it is possible "to summarize this central action in the form of a brief statement" and proceeeds to give several examples of classic films whose essence can be boiled down to a line or two that describes the essential action. It is in the writing of the plot-theme of films that Leslie Halliwell achieves greatness. He is the plot summariser par excellence, but it is more than a hack boiling down a work of art to the barest point - it has a particular poetry of its own, and one which none of Halliwell's many imitators has come close to emulating. He reveals the film - one sees it, or recalls seeing it, or feels a great compulsion to go and see it, not because he has said all that there is to say about it but because what he says is a doorway to the film's discovery.

Some of Halliwell's plot summaries are deservedly famous: "Two students marry; she dies" (Love Story); "An egotistic Southern girl survives the Civil War but finally loses the only man she cares for" (Gone with the Wind). But there hundreds if not thousands of examples, which sum up the film with wit and haiku-like insight. Of course, the descriptions are complemented by further comments, where the author's opinions creep in, but it is the plot summaries that are so acute. See if you can identify these films from how he describes them:

  • An adventurer's life with the Arabs, told in flashbacks after his accidental death in the thirties.
  • A 12-year-old boy, unhappy at home, finds himself in a detention centre but finally escapes and keeps running.
  • An English housewife survives World War II.
  • A stuffy heiress, about to be married for the second time, turns human and returns gratefully to number one.
  • A count organizes a weekend shooting party which results in complex love intrigues among servants as well as masters.
  • In old Arizona, the proprietress of a gambling saloon stakes a claim to valuable land and incurs the enmity of a lady banker.
  • A beautiful girl is murdered ... or is she? A cynical detective investigates.
  • A mysterious stranger helps a family of homesteaders.
  • The path of true love is roughened by mistaken identities.

(Answers at the end of this post - and garlands and prizes to anyone who gets the last one)

Of course there is more to film than plot, and more to Halliwell than plot descriptions. It is his opinions that give the book life, and which ultimately send us to see the film or, having seen it, to turn to his option and either agree or argue with him. But in his plot-themes Halliwell shows what makes movies tick. It's like the opening scene in The Player, when the ideas for new film are being sold as one-liners, only there the intention is to boil down folly to its essence. Halliwell shows us, ultimately, how films work. That, along with astute if reactionary opinions that are of his age, make the original Film Guide well worth visiting, and not the door-stopping, muddled hybrid that you will find in the shops today.


Lawrence of Arabia, Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows), Mrs Miniver, The Philadelphia Story, La règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game), Johnny Guitar, Laura, Shane, Top Hat

15 March 2010

Recommended reading no. 2 - Filming Literature

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Here's number 2 in an occasional series that reviews unfamiliar or neglected books on film (which of course you can find here at the British Library). This time we take a look at Neil Sinyard, Filming Literature: The Art of Screen Adaptation (London/Sydney: Croom Helm, 1986).

"The legacy of the nineteenth-century novel is the twentieth-century film".

The opening line of Neil Sinyard's Filming Literature is typical of the work as a whole - a witty and wise observation, broad in its remit, bold in its assumptions, elegant in its expression. This has long been one of my favourite film books, one to which I can come back time again for useful insights and guidance on a subject which I find endlessly fascinating, the relationship between literature and film. The book seems little known, and may have been hampered by a dreadful cover and a minor publisher that long since went out of business. But I would urge anyone with an intelligent interest in film or literature to seek it out, or simply if you take pleasure in fine writing.

Its subject is, therefore, the relationship between film and literature. This is a field where one can go back and forth endlessly, and where many a writer has got bogged down in attempting to identify the minutiae of differences between the book and the film of the book. Sinyard avoids such traps, taking a broader view of how and why such films are made. His style is approachable, unburderened by theoretical language (while remaining aware of theory), and shows equal ease with literature and film.

He does not attempt to cover the whole field. The focus is on English-language literature to begin with, and the chapters focus on significant themes and examples. So we get chapters on Shakespeare, Henry James, D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy, George Orwell, Harold Pinter's The Go-Between, James Agee's film criticism, analogies between the film and literary artist (Dickens/Chaplin, Twain/Ford, Greene/Hitchcock, Conrad/Wells), adaptation as criticism (looking at Great Expectations, Death in Venice, Barry Lyndon and The French Lieutenant's Woman), bio-pics, and finally film and theatre. Sinyard's great gifts are to understand equally the literary and filmmaking processes, to be able to call upon a wide range of film examples, and to come up with ideas that delight with their originality and expression. Here are some choice examples:

"The extraordinary opening chapter of Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, with its free movement between time and space, is one of the finest examples of montage in fiction."
"It is axiomatic that very few directors have become successful writers - Elia Kazan is a notable exception - whilst even Burt Reynolds and Sylvester Stallone can make technically competent directors."
"Olivier's Richard III (1955) is a splendid film, but it is a shame that the crowd scenes ... seem so sparsely populated, like friends gathering glumly for a thinly attended Equity meeting."
"Film lovers must find many of Orwell's remarks about the cinema distasteful and glib ... Dismissing popular cinema as 'treacly rubbish' is no substitute for a serious consideration of how films work and why they give so much pleasure to so many people ... It brings out the negative side of Orwell's posture as the honest, commonsensical man: an occasional philistinism and impoverishment of imagination, and unintellectual conservatism about new art forms and alternative modes of expression to realism."
"Film reviewing was no routine chore for him, but the culmination and fullest expression of his maturity as a writer. The film criticism of the 1940s is the heart of Agee's achievement, with his work in the following decade developing out of it and his work in the preceding decade seeming an important preparation for it."
"Kane and Kurtz are both men of limitless but frustrated potential ... Both men are disappointed with the world they find and compensate by building their own isolated monarchies."
"[T]he spirit of James is elusive, distilled as it is in a sensbility and style essentially attuned to an era before the film age. Still, this is a matter more of record than regret. A cinema that has produced its own rosebud need not lament the absence of a golden bowl."

And so on. Sinyard makes you want both to reach up to the bookshelf and to put on a DVD. You want to read again and to see again. He illuminates and intrigues. Seek out his argument of why One-Eyed Jacks is a Hamlet-derivative, or his discussion of the parallels between Great Expectations and Sunset Boulevard. There, you see - you are just going to have to take a look at them again.